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Chris Rundle on the beauty of cavolo nero

By West Country Life  |  Posted: March 15, 2014

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Everyone was babbling about what a wonderful summer it was for butterflies last year. Unfortunately round here most of them were cabbage whites.

We netted the brassicas. The cabbage whites got underneath. I tried zapping them with a high-pressure hose and they simply jinked out of the way.

One day I even had to resort to the air rifle, picking them off as they settled. But the dog kept getting in the way because he thought we were going ratting.

So in the end it proved easier to let them lay and then go round removing the eggs and the caterpillars. And I am happy to report that the reward for the hours thus spent in pest control was a fabulous cop of cavolo nero.

If you're not acquainted with it, it's time you were. This member of the brassica family hails from (no points for guessing, obviously) Italy where it's as much a feature of winter cooking as tomatoes are of the summer menu.

More specifically it's found in considerable profusion in Tuscany where you'll see bundles of its dark green leaves draped artfully over market stalls.

Although related to cabbage cavolo nero doesn't form a recognisable head but looks like a miniature palm tree.

The leaves develop thick central veins and their surface is wrinkled, rather like Savoy cabbage. But if you're looking for a super-healthy food and an aid to weight loss here it is.

The plant is also referred to as black leaf kale.

Now kale is the ultimate fashion food of the moment because of its nutritional value, and cavolo nero's own credentials are pretty impressive, too.

An average serving contains well over 50 per cent of the minimum recommended daily intakes of vitamins K, A and C, as well as significant amounts of manganese, copper, fibre, calcium and iron; plus vitamins B and E and many other elements. (My goodness! How do they manage to pack all that in?)

If that weren't enough it is also rich in antioxidants, and is thought to help prevent a variety of conditions, ranging from stomach, colon and bladder cancer though ulcerative colitis.

Finally, it's both filling and low in calories: a mere 19-26 per 100 grams which leads Italian doctors to recommend it to those who wish to shed the odd kilo or two.

Then there's the flavour.

A highly mineralised one but that makes cavolo nero a particularly satisfying thing to eat.

Steamed, or boiled in plenty or salted boiling water, it's a magnificent foil for the fattiness of roast pork but with some creamed horseradish stirred into it, it's equally good with beef.

And there's a bonus. Leave it to overwinter and around this time of the year it starts to sprout, and those sprouts give you a second crop for nothing.

Lightly steamed they can be combined with pasta for a true Italian classic, cime di rapa, which they serve in Puglia with orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta shells which are a local speciality, the whole thing topped with a sprinkling of ricotta.

Look out for cavolo nero seeds now and start them off on a window sill or greenhouse.

By late summer you'll be harvesting and – since the plants appear pretty much impervious to frost – in a year's time the yield will only just be coming to an end.

Ham bone and cavolo nero soup

One fennel bulb, two large potatoes, 20 cavolo nero leaves, the central veins removed, 200g carrots, 150g dried borlotti beans, two leeks, one onion, three garlic cloves, two dessertspoons olive oil, sea salt, freshly-ground black pepper, one ham bone, water.

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Thinly slice the onions and leeks and chop the garlic and sweat them in the oil in a large pan. Slice all the other vegetables and add them to the pot with the beans and the ham bone. Cover with three litres of water and simmer gently for two hours. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Cavolo nero with lentils and chilli

Twelve cavolo nero leaves with the central veins removed, 350g Puy lentils, 750ml chicken or vegetable stock, spring of thyme, two bay leaves, one red chilli, two cloves garlic, one large Spanish onion, tablespoon olive oil, sea salt, freshly-ground black pepper.

Wash the lentils, checking for any grit, then place in a pan with the stock, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a gentle boil then simmer for six to eight minutes until they start to become tender. Drain and reserve. Finely slice the onion, finely chop the chilli and the garlic and place in a large pan with the olive oil. Set over a medium heat and sweat gently for three to four minutes. Roughly chop the cavolo nero and steam it for five to six minutes then drain and add to the pan. Add the drained lentils, stir well to incorporate and cook gently for another four to five minutes. Check seasoning and serve.

Cavolo nero sprouts with pasta

400g pasta shells (you may be able to find orecchiette in a deli or specialist Italian food store, otherwise use conchiglie, farfale or gnocchetti), 250g cavolo nero sprouts, cut four to five inches long, two crushed and finely chopped garlic cloves, teaspoon chilli flakes, three tablespoons olive oil, 50g aged ricotta, grated, sea salt, freshly-ground black pepper.

Set the pasta to boil in plenty of salted water and place the sprouts in a steamer over the top. In a large oven-proof bowl combined the olive oil, garlic and chilli flakes and add 20 grindings of black pepper. Place in a warm oven while the pasta and sprouts are cooking. Drain the pasta and toss in the warm oil, then gently fold in the sprouts. Top with the grated ricotta and serve.

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